Photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975) captured the mere surface of an interwar America in his prints-earnest sharecroppers singing hymns, a automobile graveyard, the grim facade of a boarding house in New Orleans. Evans memorialized all of these without comment, presenting them to the viewer with an unglossed, devastating aridity. A perusal of the nearly 60 prints on view in "Walker Evans American Photographs" (through Jan. 26, 2014) at New York's Museum of Modern Art suggests that commentary would have been unnecessary. The exhibition commemorates the 75th anniversary of "American Photographs," an exhibition of Evans's work that premiered at MoMA in September 1938.
There was a quality of spontaneity to the 1938 exhibition. In an interview with A.i.A., exhibition organizer and curator Sarah Hermanson Meister described how the photographs in the exhibition, which was likely installed in a single night, had been affixed directly to gallery walls. But that exhibition borrowed its title from something Evans had assembled with far more deliberation—his book American Photographs. Though the museum exhibition lasted only weeks, the images contained in that volume established Evans's work as, in the words of an accompanying essay by his friend (and co-founder of the New York City Ballet) Lincoln Kirstein, "a powerful monument to our moment." Meister characterized American Photographs as "not only the most basic way to know his work," adding, "It has defined his legacy."
"Walker Evans" is designed to thrust viewers into the experiential equivalent of Evans's book. Like the book, "Walker Evans" divides prints into two sections, individuals and structures. The first relies on individuals placed in social contexts to evoke American society. The second documents quintessentially American churches, landscapes and houses. When designing his book, Evans insisted that the experience of gazing at the plates be uninterrupted by text-titles were given only at the end of each section. Similarly, the prints in "Walker Evans," in unobtrusive white frames, remain unaccompanied by titles, a choice which, according to Meister, was made "to evoke the experimental spirit of 1938 and the immediacy and elegance" with which the prints appeared in the original text
"Walker Evans" reveals a lyricist of the incidental who just happens to catch at the core of things. Often, his subjects exude aimlessness, either because they seem fixated on something they do not know or despairing of something that no longer exists. They seem to be staring into a time that will devour them—but thanks to Evans, it has not.